Templo Mayor

Mexican students posing in front of a reproduction of the Coyolxauhqui monolith

My first afternoon in Mexico City was spent at the spot where modern-day Mexico was born - in the heart of Tenochtitlan, at the ruins of the Templo Mayor. But before we talk about that, a few observations:

First observation - Aztec myths and gods have always seemed so "foreign" to me. When I went to Egypt, I was well-versed in their ancient mythology, which is no less convoluted than that of the Aztecs. But I think loads of people get at least some exposure to Egypt in school, thanks to it being one of the building blocks for Western civilization. In the same history, the Aztecs were a people conquered. We learn about their defeat at the hands of Cortés and practically nothing about their stories and beliefs. (Difficult names like Coyolxauhqui and Huitzilopochtli probably don't help.)

Second observation - I've seen - both online and in person - lots of confusion about Mexico's different indigenous cultures. (People saying Teotihuacan is a Mayan or Aztec site, when it isn't either, for example.) The Aztecs were the last great Pre-Colombian civilization at the time Cortés arrived, but they'd only been in that position for about 200 years.

Third observation - Aztec is a misnomer. Mexica is the proper name, and is used on signage throughout museums and historical sites. So, from this point on... Mexica.

Tlaltecuhtli and Mictlantecuhtli 


So this guy and this girl get together and have 401 children - that's the story of Mixcoatl and Coatlicue in a nutshell. If you want to go into detail, Mixcoatl was a sky god of hunting, the Milky Way, and the stars. Coatlicue was an earth goddess who wore a pretty fierce skirt made of snakes. She's more important in this story.

Mixcoatl and Coatlicue's 400 sons were the Centzon Huitznahuas, the southern star gods. Their leader was their sister, Coyolxauhqui. (Girl power, yay.)

Mama Coatlicue was sweeping on Serpent Hill, when she found a ball of hummingbird feathers and pocketed them. When she looked for them later, they were gone - oops, pregnant. (Hey, if Zeus could do it...) Coyolxauhqui was angry with her mother for getting knocked up, believing she'd dishonored the family. She rounded up her brothers and they attacked Coatlicue. As they did so, Huitzilopochtli jumped out of his mom's womb, fully grown and armored and clutching a fire-breathing snake. He chased off his brothers, who scattered across the sky as the stars. He beheaded his sister, tossing her dismembered limbs off the mountain and flinging her head into the sky, where it became the moon.

Huitzilopochtli became a deity of the sun, war, and human sacrifice. He was the national god of the Mexica and the patron saint of the city of Tenochtitlan. The Mexica, who were descendants of the Nahua peoples from the deserts of northwestern Mexico, wandered Central Mexico for many years before they were given a sign - an eagle clutching a snake while perched on a nopal cactus - that this island in the valley was the place they were to build their city. 

Four more gods you should know:

Quetzalcoatl - god of the wind, depicted as a feathered serpent (basically a dragon), created boundaries between earth and sky, associated with the morning star.

Xolotl - twin of the above, god of lightning and death, depicted as dog, would lead soul through underworld, patron of the ballgame (as it mimicked his role as protector of sun in underworld), associated with the evening star.

Tlaloc - god of rain and water, both as a nourishing force and a destructive one.

Mictlantecuhtli - god of death, his worship involved ritual cannibalism.

Model of the Sacred Precinct in the Anthropology Museum

Layers of different stages of the pyramid


The sacred precinct of Tenochtitlan was larger than the site of the Templo Mayor today, covering more land to the south, west, and north. The temple itself was built over six times, each successive temple growing larger and taller. Since its second rendition, it was a steep, stepped pyramid with two altars on top - one for Huitzilopochtli and one for Tlaloc. All but the first rendition of the pyramid have been uncovered during excavation, and you can see various sets of steps spanning outward from the different phases of construction. The first pyramid was built sometime after 1325 CE. The second was built between 1375 and 1427 and is the most complete bit uncovered - you can still see the two temples that mark the top, along with a Chac-Mool statue which probably served as a place to put still-beating hearts.

Chac-Mool got around - a cross-cultural figure

Ritual sacrifices were carried out on top of the temple, emulating the legend of Huitzilopochtli - the victim, usually a prisoner of war, would have their heart cut out before being dismembered and beheaded, just like poor Coyolxauhqui. Their limbs would be tossed down the pyramid, to be collected by the warrior who'd captured the prisoner in the first place. Their head would be added to the tzompantli, a rack of skulls displayed at the bottom. (Stone recreations lined the walls of a nearby shrine.)

The fourth pyramid (1440-1481) was the grandest and best decorated. The walkway up to Tlaloc's side of the temple was decorated with giant snakes, and a shrine with two frogs (which are frankly adorable amidst the carnage) was built by its foot. A large stone depicting Coyolxauhqui was also placed at the foot of the pyramids in this era, like a kind of grisly target for future sacrifices.

The sixth pyramid (1487) included walls around the sacred precinct, which would prove to be not such a great idea once the Spanish arrived. A grand house for the eagle warriors - literally, elite warriors who dressed up like eagles - was built to the north of the pyramid. It's pretty well excavated today. This phase of the temple was dedicated with 4,000 human sacrifices in four days. Pretty sure the place looked like the elevator scene in 'The Shining'.

 House of the Eagles

Cortés arrived in 1519, having conquered cities and made alliances along the way. The leader of the Mexica, Moctezuma, allowed the Spaniards to enter the city, possibly to study their weaknesses or possibly because he thought Cortés was the second coming of Quetzalcoatl. It ended with Cortés holding Moctezuma hostage, a puppet ruler in his own city. Meanwhile, Cortés - who had basically skipped out of Cuba (and out on his wife, the Cuban governor's sister-in-law) to go on this unauthorized expedition - received word that the governor had sent a new expedition to oppose him. Cortés rushed out of the city to fight the newcomers, leaving Tenochtitlan in charge of one of his lieutenants, Pedro de Alvarado.

Alvarado massacred a bunch of high-ranking Mexica while they were conducting a ceremony in the sacred precinct - the warriors were pinned in by those walls - sparking a local rebellion. Upon Cortés' return, Moctezuma ended up dead (it's still unclear if the Spanish killed him or his own people did, for letting the Spaniards in so easily) and the Spanish fled the city. They returned with reinforcements from Cuba, laying siege to the city. Cortés captured the last ruler of the Mexica, Cuauhtémoc, and claimed Mexico City for Spain in 1521. The Spanish leveled the temples of the Mexica and built "New Spain" over them, including a grand new cathedral. 


There was plenty of documentation as to where the sacred precinct of the Mexica had been located, but it wasn't something the rulers of New Spain were interested in revisiting. In 1790, a statue of Cotilicue was discovered and quickly buried again because of concerns the indigenous population would treat it as an object of worship. The famous "Aztec" sun stone was also uncovered, but fared better - it was displayed in the cathedral.


People remained largely uninterested in the site until the late-1800s, but didn't pursue excavation because the area was now an upper-class, residential neighborhood. Things would be discovered every 15 years or so through the twentieth century, but it wasn't until 1978, with the discovery of the Coyolxuahqui stone, that excavation and preservation became a priority. Thousands of objects were found and can now be seen at the onsite museum.

But here's the thing - as interesting as the Templo Mayor site is, most of the information I listed above, I got from Wikipedia. You walk through the excavated site with very little context. Faded plaques along the way give snippets of info, in both Spanish and English, but it's hard to get an overall sense of the site or its story as a whole. I got more out of the museum at the end - it's pretty well presented - but I wish the order was switched around so you could explore the museum first. Hopefully this post will help you better understand the Templo Mayor if you're preparing for your own trip!



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